A magical gulf, beloved by poets

“To those who arrive by sea it appears on the shore of the port of Venus and here - among the olive cloaked hills - it is said that even Minerva was led by so much sweetness to forget Athens - her homeland...”

With these words, the famous Italian writer and poet Petrarch, celebrated Porto Venere, in 1338. Still considered today the “panoramic miracle” of the gulf of La Spezia, so great is its beauty and particularity, that in 1997 it was declared “World Heritage Site” by the UNESCO, together with its archipelago of small islands.

Lucia Maffei

The small town is situated on the tip of the western branch of the gulf of La Spezia, on the very last portion of the Riviera Ligure di Levante. Protected by a thick circle of walls which leans on the mountain located behind it, Portovenere appears suddenly to the visitor. A small gulf, with Palmaria island in front of it, the characteristic and colored port, but above all the unmistakable wall of houses – tall, narrow and motley colored, overlooking the sea.

And where the town ends, high above it on a peak of rocks, is the church of Saint Peter, a wonderful example of Genoese Romanesque architecture with its rigorous parameter of black and white marble stripes. From the extreme tip of the promontory, it dominates the town and the port on one side, and looks to the open sea on the other.

Today, this small fishing village of ancient Roman origin, is a favorite destination for refined tourism and greets its visitors by treating them to the intact appeal and enchanted atmosphere of an ancient lifestyle dictated by the rhythm of the sea and of fishing.

AND TO DEEPEN THE ACQUAINTANCE WITH THIS LAND, BUT ABOVE ALL WITH ITS SEA, the best way is to board one of the many fishing boats anchored in the port and embark on the discovery of the coast and the three small islands of Palmaria, Tino and Tinetto that protect and shelter, with their presence, the port and the town. As soon as we are beyond the narrow passage that separates Palmaria island from Portovenere, called Le Bocche, the eye is captured by the series of inlets and cliffs rising steeply from the sea and covered in a lush Mediterranean thicket, hiding caves that suddenly open onto the harsh walls of rock.

THE PERFECTION AND BEAUTY OF THIS SCENARIO THAT STILL TODAY STRIKE ANYONE WHO SEES IT FOR THE FIRST TIME, have always been a source of inspiration for poets of all times. The memory of this presence is today fostered by a park dedicated to poets: an itinerary that runs along the entire Gulf of La Spezia and retraces the places that were so dear to these artists. And the “literary” history of this corner of the coast must be ancient if, in the XIV century, Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch were acquainted with this portion of the region of Liguria. Starting in the XVIII century, the fashion of the “Grand Tour en l’Italie” brings to the Gulf of La Spezia many famous intellectuals and artists from abroad. Often enchanted by the beauty of these places, they decided to remain for long spells.

But it is in the XIX century that the light, the colors and the smell of this Italian gulf become an extraordinary source of inspiration for English poets. In the romantic verses of Percy Bysshe Shelley, one can perceive and relive these sensations “ …All flowers in field or forest which unclose their trembling eyelids to the kiss of day, swinging their censers in the element, with orient incense lit by the new ray burned slow and inconsumably, and sent their odorous sighs up to the smiling air…”

ALSO LORD BYRON IN 1822 ESTABLISHES HIMSELF IN PORTOVENERE FOR A WHILE. Among the many curious memories associated with his presence here, there is one episode according to which, having learned that his colleague Shelley was in Lerici, he dived in the waters to reach him, swimming the distance of eight kilometers.

To commemorate this crossing, the Byron Cup is held every August, a contest that rewards the winner of a ten-kilometer swim!

But perhaps the beauty of the sea was really irresistable if Mary Shelley wrote that “…The beauty of the place seemed unrealthly in its excess; the distance we were at from all signs of civilization, the sea at our feet, its murmurs or its roaring for ever in our ears, - all these things led the mind to brood over strange thoughts, and, lifting it from eveyday life, caused it to be familiar with the unreal. A sort of spell surrounded us...”

The list of writers bewitched by the beauty of these landscapes and the simplicity of daily life is endless and uninterrupted: D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Eugenio Montale, Quasimodo, Tomlinson, Mario Soldati… all stopped for long periods and wrote to their friends, inviting them to visit them in this “ideal place”.

David H. Lawrence in a letter writes: “...The Mediterranean is quite wonderful - and when the sun sets beyond the islands of Porto Venere, and all the sea is like heaving white milk with a street of fire across it, and amethyst islands away back, it is too beautiful...”

TODAY, IT IS SURPRISING TO DISCOVER HOW, AFTER SUCH A LONG TIME, PORTOVENERE STILL SEDUCES, offering a special atmosphere, the smell of the sea and of fresh bread, and lots of small grand discoveries regaled to those who venture along its carrugi – the small, tortuous, dark roads where, suddenly, shops and taverns appear, and even the simplest of doors is so different from the others that it beckons to be looked at and remembered. •

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